Friday, July 19, 2019

Hamilton (an opera review post, part two)

"Ladies and gentlemen, you coulda been anywhere in the world tonight!
"But you're here...!"

Okay, maybe you couldn't have been anywhere, and maybe you're not here -- actually, looking around me, I know that you're not -- but you get the message, I'm sure.
Or, at least, I hope you do.

As I said last post, we in my family were kind of early adopters of the whole Hamilton thing. Christmas of 2015 was full of Hamilton merchandise, and we hadn't done more than listen to it online before that. A lot. Seriously. A LOT. But after Christmas, there were CDs and, then, the music went everywhere with us. I did mention, didn't I (last post), that 2/3 of my kids know the entire thing, basically, by heart. Actually, the 1/3 might also know it, but he tries to feign indifference to Hamilton. (It's complicated.)

At any rate, it's the kind of immersion that makes me wonder about the necessity of seeing the actual stage production.
Let me tell you a brief story:

Once upon a time, I had never been to Disneyland. When my extended family found out, they were amazed and dumbfounded and decided that had to change. But I'd been to Six Flags, many of them many many times, and didn't get the big deal. I mean, it's just a bigger amusement park, right? Boy, was I wrong about that. It's the difference between a McDonald's cheeseburger and the best hamburger you've ever had, unless a McDonald's cheeseburger is the best burger you've ever had, in which case I'm very sad for you.

Yes, what I'm saying is that the stage production is so worth seeing. It was... tremendous.

That said, there is one hangup I have with Lin-Manuel Miranda over Hamilton. It's a small hangup because the work is, overall, amazing, but it's still there, and I would definitely point it out in any other piece of work (and have). Miranda needlessly changes the history in a few places. I'm not talking about changes one might make to a story so that it would flow more smoothly or something; he just changes some facts here and there. Even though they're relatively "small" things, in this day and age, I think it's dangerous. For one thing, it gives people who want to detract from the larger Truth of the work an opening to do so. But, also, since people tend to not bother with knowing history stuff, it leads them to believe things that aren't true. You know 99% of people who have seen this had no idea who Alexander Hamilton was before they saw Hamilton. [Yes, I pulled that number out of my butt. It's a metaphor because I have no idea what the actual percentage is, but I know that it's very very high.]

Of course, he did write it before all of the fake news and alternative facts, so maybe he wouldn't do it that way again. It just happened that it exploded onto the scene and was quickly followed by the quasi-reality we're all living through right now.

Other than that, there's nothing bad I can say about Hamilton in general. It's a great opera. Even I know some of the songs. And seeing it live... well, it took it up another level.

For one thing, there are a few things you can't get from just listening to it, things I didn't really realize I hadn't gotten until I saw it. I didn't know I was missing stuff, because I was out of context from the action on the stage but, when you see the performance, the lyrics in places click into place and it's like, "Oh! That's what that means!" Plus, I don't have the best ear, so I can't always tell when I'm listening to it who is singing what in the pieces where there are a lot of singers telling different bits, like in the opening number, so, for me, it was really nice to be able to see who was singing what.

As you can see from the picture,
the stage was pretty impressive. There were rotating portions of the stage as well that produced some interesting effects at points as people were rotated in opposite directions or were able to walk without moving across the stage.

The cast was great, even Simon Longnight as Lafayette, at which point I didn't care for him because of the nasal pitch to his voice, but I wasn't sure if it was him I wasn't liking so much as the faux French accent for the character. In the second part of the production, he becomes Thomas Jefferson, and he was completely enjoyable as Jefferson, so it was the accent that was the issue in the first part. At any rate, that's the only part of the entire production I have any quibble with, and that's hardly even a thing.

Julia Harriman, as Eliza, was powerful powerful during "Burn." I was surprised at how powerful.

Donald Webber gave a similarly powerful performance of "Wait for It."

Isaiah Johnson was amazing as Washington, possibly the best in the case? I don't know. I have a hard time judging that kind of thing. Like I said, I don't have the best ear.

Rick Negron's calves stole the scene as King George, but he was still great. It's not his fault all of us (seriously, we all noticed) noticed the size of his calves. Also, I want to point out, there are parts of the production that contain George where he's not singing, so you never know until you see it. It was so awesome to see him dance around the stage during "The Reyonlds Pamphlet."

And, then, there's  Julius Thomas as Hamilton. He was amazing. I mean, probably not the best singer up there, but he has to carry the show, and he certainly did that. Also, he came out after the show and signed autographs and let people take selfies with him and was so gracious about all of it. Thanking people for being there and supporting the show while allowing them to take up his time when you know he has to be tired and wants to just go home already. I was super impressed.

Look, if you have the chance to go see Hamilton, you should do it. It's an amazing show with fabulous music, and it's playing in several venues across the U.S. and on tour as well. I know you might have to "Wait for It," we did, but it is well worth it. I want to go again.

Thursday, July 18, 2019

Hamilton (an opera review post, part one)

Okay, let's talk about the elephant I just brought into the room: I called this an "opera review post." Why would I do such a thing when Hamilton is clearly not an opera.
I'm just gonna guess that you don't actually know what an opera is. You just have a vague cultural idea of opera as some snooty upper class thing full of boring classical music and languages you don't understand.
And, well, unfortunately, that's kind of what opera has become, but it's not what it actually is. Oh, and when I say "kind of" what it's become, I actually mean that's not at all what it's become, but I can understand why so many people think of that way: It's how I used to think of it, too.

So what is opera, then? And what makes it different from musical theater?
Or from a play?
Well, both opera and musical theater fit under the broader category of what a play is. We tend to think of plays as the things without music, but they're all plays. If you add a few songs (or more than a few) but the play still consists of mostly spoken dialogue, you get musical theater. If it's a completely sung work, it's an opera.
Don't look at me like that, I'm talking about definitions, here, and definitions are important.

Look at it like this:
When opera was the entertainment of the day, opera was not a snooty upper class thing. Opera was entertainment for the masses and full of popular music. Classical music wasn't written to be classical -- there was no such thing at the time -- it was written to be popular. It's only "classical" now because it has endured. That's how popular it was. You'd probably be surprised at how much of the music you'd recognize if you became an opera-goer. (Just sayin'.) This was Top 40 stuff, is all I'm sayin'.

Also, opera wasn't written in other languages to be inaccessible to people. They were written in the languages of the people watching them. So, you know, French and Italian, especially. Some German. Other languages, too, just not much English. Look, I don't know why the British didn't get into opera writing. If they had, maybe we'd have different ideas about opera these days, but they didn't. Probably something to do with their "stiff upper lip" personality thing. It's a mystery to me. What it means, though, is that all of the big, famous operas from the past are mostly French or Italian, which means that when we think of operas, we get this idea that they have to be written in some other language.

It's the Three Wise Men, okay. It's all assumptions with no facts to back it up.

Hamilton is a sung work. There's really nothing spoken in it. A line or two here or there for emphasis, if you want to get all technical about it, but one word spoken without music doesn't make it not a sung work, so don't try to go all musical theater on me. And, no, the line between opera and musical theater can be blurry, but it's not so blurry that it extends to a word or two.

Hamilton is full of popular music. It's very singable. I know, because 2/3 of my kids know the entire thing by heart. It's also in the language of the people, which I'm just gonna say again, older operas were not written in some special "opera language," they were written in the languages of the audiences and the composers. It's not surprising, then, that Hamilton is in English.

So, Hamilton is an opera, which means that if you've seen Hamilton or listened to Hamilton, you've been interacting with opera. If you enjoyed Hamilton, you're enjoying opera.
It's not my fault; I'm not making this stuff up.

It also means that Lin-Manuel Miranda is the most famous opera singer in America.

My family's involvement with Hamilton began in the fall of 2015. NPR did a piece about it which my wife heard on her way home from work. She came home and played a bit of it for me, sure that I wasn't going to like it. Hip-hop isn't exactly my style of music. She was astonished when I liked it and told her to let it play. Maybe it was that I already liked Alexander Hamilton and had thought since high school that he's kinda gotten the short end of the stick. Maybe the music is just that catchy. Maybe it was a double-full blue blood moon and the tides were both extremely high and non-existent. I suppose it doesn't really matter why, but I liked it and, because, at that moment, I told my wife to let it play so my daughter heard it and she liked it and, well, it just cascaded from there.

We were all very disappointed that it only won 11 Tony awards.

All of which is to say that we didn't just go see Hamilton because it was a thing to do and people talk about it a lot. It was a dream-fulfillment thing, especially for my daughter. And it was her birthday present, which we will probably never be able to top.

None of which has anything to do with the performance that we saw, but that will have to be next time...

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Rebels: "Legacy of Mandalore" (Ep. 3.16)

-- "Maybe things have changed. They might be happy to see you."

You know, crash landings in spaceships in the Star Wars universe is way safer than crashing a car here in ours. I mean, no one ever dies. Or is even hurt. Sometimes, the spaceships aren't even hurt that bad. I suppose 40 years of precedence is hard to overcome. No, I don't know why I've never realized this before, but this episode gets us going with a crash landing, and the realization sort of just hit me like a spaceship to the skull. Not only is everyone fine, but the spaceship doesn't need any repairs.


Mandalore has gone over to the Empire, something I'm not sure I've mentioned in any of my earlier reviews, and their armor looks pretty cool in white. Sabine has gone home with the darksaber to try to rally support to the Rebellion. Hi-jinks ensue.
By hi-jinks I mean betrayal and family conflict.

This episode marks a turning point in the series. I'm not sure what kind of turning point, but I will say that Ezra and Kanan leave Mandalore with only Chopper, leaving two of their companions behind.
Yeah, read between the lines; I'm not spelling it all out for you.
Or go watch the episode.

"Didn't you tell them who you were?"
"That's probably why they're shooting at us."

"That went better than expected."
"That was better?"

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Spider-Man: Far From Home (a movie review post)

I'm sure I've said it before, but Spider-Man is and always has been my favorite superhero. For as long as I've had a favorite superhero, that is, which is a long time, at least since I was four. I know I was four because I had this Spider-Man toy that I loved, and I remember playing with it at the house we lived in when I was four. It included a tube of stuff you could use to make spiderwebs, and I got in trouble pretty frequently for making webs between the spindles on the backs of our chairs.

Mysterio, on the other hand, has never been one of my favorite characters in the Spider-verse. And this bit may sound spoilery, but I'm not being spoilery because Marvel has done such an excellent job of setting up the MCU as its own place, and you can't take anything from the comics as being binding for the MCU. As far as villains go, Kraven was always my favorite when I was a kid then, later, it was Hobgoblin. Mysterio just wasn't that interesting but, man, has he been around for a long time, so it's cool to see Marvel pull him into the MCU in a way that makes much more sense than his comics origins. And Jake Gyllenhaal was great in the role. He really made it work.

He makes it work because the real crisis in the movie is Peter dealing with the death of Tony Stark. Both with his personal loss -- And, remember, for Peter, it hasn't actually been all that long since his Uncle Ben died. Tony is the second father figure for Peter to lose since he's been in high school. -- and the pressure from those around him to step up and be, basically, the Iron Spider. It's a lot to deal with and Quentin (Mysterio) is the only one around Peter offering him any support. Being fatherly.

And that's all I'll say about that.

The movie is a lot of fun, much of it dealing with Peter trying to work up the courage to tell MJ how he feels about her, something which is probably a "welcome" distraction for him rather than dealing with the pressure from all of the adults around him and the constant reminders that Start is dead. Yeah, I did say that the teenage romantic angst was something welcome for Peter, and he tries his best to avoid being Spider-Man just so that he can deal with what he sees as the romantic tension between the two of them.

I suppose the real question is, "Is it as good as Homecoming?" I'd have to say that it's not but, also, that it's not far off. It's definitely setting the stage for things that are to come, both for the next Spider-Man movie and the MCU in general, while dealing with Peter's personal issues and conflicts. If you're an MCU fan or a Spider-Man fan, it's certainly not to be missed.

Monday, July 15, 2019

Men in Black: International (a movie review post)

My first question is, "Why isn't this movie making more money?" Seriously, what the heck? It's like people can't deal with any deviation from the original but, yet, are going to complain about the thing if it's just like the original. Which, I suppose, explains the success of those inane Angry Speed movies, but you can get away with that kind of stuff when you toss your story out the window in favor of fast cars and explosions. Hmph, also explains the success of that last Max movie: fast driving, chases, and misogyny; can't beat that combo, I guess.

Anyway... None of that has to do with MiB: International, which was a delightfully fun movie. I'm not sure if there's any actor out there, right now, who is more fun to watch than Chris Hemsworth, and he was a lot of fun in this movie.

But I get that this is not Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones. You know why? Because THIS IS NOT WILL SMITH AND TOMMY LEE JONES! This is not a story about Agents J and K. Why would you explore other stories in the Men-in-Black world and just stick new actors into previous character types? This one is about looking around the agency and seeing what else is there, not reproducing the same story that has already been told. This isn't a remake; if it were, you could make a case for trying to reproduce that same chemistry and with the same archetypes.

In fact, I would barely call this re-boot other than that they've taken a franchise that hasn't been touched in a while and made a new movie in that world in the hopes that it would lead to more movies, which it probably won't, based on its performance, and that's too bad, because this is a good movie. It deserves a lot of credit for not falling back into the tropes of the previous movies.

So, anyway...
Emma Thompson was perfect as Agent O; I wouldn't have dis-enjoyed it if they'd had more of her in the movie. Kumail was pretty great as Pawny. And Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson had great chemistry and worked well together. There really needs to be a sequel to this movie to keep these characters onscreen together.
Yeah, I didn't mention Liam Neeson. He was fine. I'm just not that impressed with him these days. He's entered the realm of always just playing Liam Neeson, so he was what I would say is the weak link of the movie. Fortunately, he's not in the movie that much.

All of which is to say, you should give the movie a chance if this is at all your kind of thing at all. Liam Neeson aside.